Language and Thought at the Economist

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A new motion is open for debate today in the Economist's online series: "This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think".  Lera Boroditsky is the designated defender of the motion, and I was recruited to be the designated opponent.

In this format, each side submits an opening statement, a rebuttal, and a closing statement. Readers get to comment, and also to vote on the motion. Our opening statements are now live.

As regular LL readers know, my perspective on this question is not all that different from Lera's — see here and here for some past discussion. So when I was invited to participate in the debate, I tried to pass the buck to a more resolute and orthodox anti-Whorfian who has actually done some research on the topic (as I have not). This attempt failed, and in the end, I agreed to play the role. You can be the judge of how well I succeeded.


  1. John Lawler said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    There is a presupposition here that "we" both "speak the language" and "think" (however these are to be defined) in the same way, for all of "us". This is not self-evident; rather, it's a matter of assumption. The assumption is useful in many ways, and it's common, but it's not a fact.
    Individual variations in thought and speech often swamp whatever similarities may exist between individual people and languages, leading to the possibility that "the language we speak" does "shape how we think" for some of "us", and not for others. So you can both be right.

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  3. Dominik Lukes said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    I think you did the topic great justice. I particularly liked your opening and closing statements:

    "Properly interpreted, the proposition is true: the language we speak shapes how we think…" … "But … nearly every instance of this idea in the mass media is false or seriously misleading."

    But I was also impressed by Boroditsky: "Languages shape our thinking in the same ways that going to medical school or learning to fly a plane also build expertise and transform what we can do."

    For instance, speaking Czech equips you for speaking about Czech cuisine. I often make the controversial statement: "Czech has no word for bread". But what I mean is that Czech has no label for the generic category of dough-based goods labelled in English as bread that could be usefully applied in conversation. Basically, you must always specify the exact species rather than just a genus of what you want. It's not very difficult to learn but it limits what sort of things you can easily say. I've seen many an example of learners of Czech struggling to express a general need for some baked goods only to meet with incomprehension by their Czech interlocutors. This wasn't caused by not knowing the words but by the inability to categorize (see) the world of Czech baked goods the same way. Czech and English in this case shape the way we can think and talk about the world around us but in a thoroughly unremarkable way. Just as it is unremarkable that taxi drivers, police officers and teachers can do and understand things others cannot.

  4. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 11:53 am

    I’m reading this as a couple of nice scientists telling me cool facts in some random inappropriate place… Because it definitely doesn’t feel like a debate. Profs. Boroditsky and Liberman opening statements do not seem to contradict each other at all.

  5. Craig Russell said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    I think there is definitely something to John Lawler's comment. The phrase "English has no word for…" assumes that there is a standard set of words that every English speaker has access to, when of course every individual speaker's vocabulary includes different words (and words that each person can understand but would not produce, understands generally but not specifically, understands some meanings of but not others, etc)

    I think specifically about the technical vocabulary that specialists have. If I looked inside a car engine, I would not be able to produce a noun for many of the parts I saw; while a mechanic would. That difference in vocabulary is certainly tied to a real difference in our perception of that car engine. (This could of course be applied to plants in the jungle, switches on an airplane control panel, parts on a computer motherboard, and so on.)

    But it is not so simple to say that I see the world (of automobiles) differently because my language doesn't have as many words for car parts as the mechanic's. That is to reduce a complex relationship between language, culture, individual interest and individual intelligence (etc) to a simple equation that hides the true nature of what is going on.

  6. Chris said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    One small critique: I think you focused on the no word for X angle a little to much in your opening statement. To me, the most frustrating feature of neo-Whorfians like Boroditsky is their tendency to wayyyy over-interpret their results. They find weakly suggestive differences between certain language pairs in highly constrained tests, and all of a sudden they use words like profound to describe their results, and assume their results are universal. Boroditsky actually begins her opening statement with the patently absurd claim that empirical advances over the past decade have at last provided us with scientific answers about how languages shape thinking.

    Answers? Scientific answers? Really?

  7. magdalena said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

    To Dominik Lukes: how about "pečivo" for baked goods as such in Czech? AFAIK, pečivo covers the "bread" part of the spectrum, while moučníky describe the "cakes" part?

  8. Joe said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    I have to say I find it bizarre that this topic was chosen as a motion that could be voted on in the first place. Surely the question is an empirical one, and the venue doesn't really lend itself to a careful evaluation of empirical evidence or even definition of terms. What do people think "language" "thought" and "shape" even mean in this context? I imagine quite a number of people will think of it in terms of Slobin's "thinking for speaking" whereas as others might think of it as something much stronger.

    I really liked your discussion of Boroditsky In the second link above, and it would have been interesting to hear her response. As it is, she rehearsed claims that the neo-Whorfians have been making for a while now, but claims aren't the same as evidence. I think she does do some interesting work, so my complaint is more about how The Economist set up the issue in terms of a motion.

    By the by, I was just thinking about your promise to discuss Deutscher's NYT piece…

  9. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 2:29 pm

    I think both offered worthwhile perspectives and information on the issue. Boroditsky offered some good examples of the relationship between language and perception. Lieberman demonstrated how this can be, and frequently is, misunderstood and misrepresented. A debate? Hmm. I guess we need discussions framed as a debate in order to make it attractive to readers.

  10. phosphorious said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    "For example, unlike English, many languages do not use words like "left" and "right" and instead put everything in terms of cardinal directions, requiring their speakers to say things like "there's an ant on your south-west leg"."

    Doesn't this completely discredit the Whorf hypothesis, in any form? After all, as a native English speaker, I could say "There's an ant on your south west leg." But the fact is. . . I don't. But not for any semantic or syntactic reason. That's a perfectly grammatical thing to say, and any native speaker would understand that sentence. . . but no English speaker talks like that.

    I would have thought that this example sunders once and for all the alleged connection between language and thought.

    Am I missing something?

  11. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    @phosphorious: I think you did. English does have words for both orientations but they are generally used in different contexts. But not all languages have both. If I were to direct an English speaking guest to the bathroom in my house with cardinal directions, I would risk disaster and embarrassment.

  12. Andrew Garrett said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:37 pm

    Mark, something about the valiant struggle seems sadly doomed when we read the following even in an Economist reader comment: "Eskimos have separate words for flurries, blizzard, slush, powder, sleet, hail, graupel, drifts, névé, frost, ice, glaciers, … while we poor benighted English-speakers are stuck with the work-around of sticking modifiers on one word, "snow", for any solid H2O from the atmosphere." A separate word for "ice" — we should learn from them!

  13. jc said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    One of my favorite examples was in an online discussion a few years back, when one writer claimed that a certain language (I've forgotten which one) lacked a word for free speech. I replied "Neither does English; that's why we use a two-word phrase for the concept." I got a lot of replies saying how much they liked my example, and the discussion died quickly after that.

    Another nice example I've seen is the trouble translating the English word "blue" into a Slavic languages. All those languages divide what we call "blue" into two colors, so strictly speaking, there is no Slavic word for blue. However, they do have a word that means "or", and can use it the same way we might say "yellow or orange" to translate a single word with that meaning into English. So the English "blue" concept is not really foreign to Slavic speakers, and they have no problem learning the English word. I have a potted lantana plant whose flowers I usually describe as "yellow-to-orange", and in this case their colors include numerous shades ranging from a true yellow to a true orange. My English doesn't seem to limit my ability to describe such an interesting flower, and I'd guess that a Serb would have no more problem describing a flower with colors ranging through the "plavi" and "sinji" parts of the spectrum. I have some Siberian irises in the yard that have such multiple blues. I've never seen the Russian description of its colors, but I doubt they'd have a problem with it.

    I've also liked to make the claim that most languages lack a word for "go". This just means, of course, that most languages don't have a verb of motion quite as vague and fuzzy as the English word, but have lots of more specific verbs such as "walk" or "ride". And they always seem to have a word for "or", so they can easily construct a translation of the English "go". An English-to-X dictionary would simply list X's verbs of motion that could be used.

  14. Chandra said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    I'm pleased to see that many of the commenters are voicing support for the notion that the assertions "language shapes thought" and "thought shapes language" are not mutually exclusive. In all likelihood, both processes take place simultaneously.

    If thought does not shape language, how did language first come about? Did primeval people think first, or speak first? Do animals not think, given that they cannot speak?

  15. phosphorious said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    "If I were to direct an English speaking guest to the bathroom in my house with cardinal directions, I would risk disaster and embarrassment."

    But you would not be making either a syntactic or a semantic mistake. You would still be speaking English. . . you just wouldn't be saying anything that a normal English speaker could decode in a hurry. My having the concepts, and the words for them, doesn't mean I can use them easily! But if I decided to speak exclusively in terms of cardinal directions, I might become more fluent in using them. . . but in doing so, I would not stop speaking English.

    [(myl) In fact, there are two bathrooms in my apartment, and I generally describe them as the "east bathroom" and the "west bathroom". This is not a crypto-Whorfian joke, but simply the most straightforward solution to the problem. The apartment faces Spruce St. in Philadelphia, which runs east and west; this orientation is very salient to local people in general (you can see the Downtown skyscrapers if you look east on Spruce street); and because there are doors at both ends of the space, and it's hard to know which side someone will be entering from, expressions like "the front/back bathroom" don't work. I recently had a leak in the west bathroom's sink. The plumber who came to fix it had no problem following my directions.

    We have two more-or-less symmetrical public spaces in McClelland Hall, and (for similar reasons) we call them the "North Lounge" and the "South Lounge". Again, this way of talking works, because the compass orientation is salient to almost everyone.

    This kind of thing is extremely common. Search the web for things like "east end of the" and you'll find millions of examples. ]

  16. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    @phosphorious: Admittedly, my example wasn't very good. Her point, as I understand it, and apparently supported by research, is that one's orientation in the world is influenced by the language we have in describing it. Although I have cardinal directions in my lexicon, I would have trouble finding a room in a building following cardinal directions.

    [(myl) This would probably not be true if you lived in a place where compass directions are salient. At least, people who live in such places very often give directions using phrases like "the east end of the building", and presumably this is because others often find these directions helpful.]

  17. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    @myl: Would you direct an out-of-town guest to the bathroom from the dining room using cardinal directions?

    [(myl) If I were there with them, I'd just point.]

  18. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    @myl: Next time someone asks at my house, I'll try, "down the hall, the first door in southeast."

  19. blahedo said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    @Andrew: Surely a comment like that is meant satirically, especially on the Economist of all places.

  20. Chris said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:01 pm

    Sapir's critical point is that language does not not constrain what you cannot say, it constrains what you must say. Germans must reference gender when using nouns, for example, because their language forces them to. In any case, the only thing this suggests is that speakers of cardinal direction languages have better recall of things related to cardinal directions. But that does not count as "affecting thought" in the way this debate supposes it does (imho). In fact, one of my primary complaints against the SWH in any of its forms, is that there is never a rigorous accounting of what affecting thought should and should not mean.

    @myl: since The Economist allows people to change their votes, I wonder if they will give us a graphic telling us how many votes changed and in what direction (in other words, how effective were your competing arguments)?

  21. Lugubert said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    One word that makes me feel rather Whorfian is "mind". My main EN-SV dictionary uses on average 0.009 pages/word; "mind" needs a full page, and I still find it difficult to grasp what English speakers/writers mean by it. It just doesn’t map to my world view. Is it mostly like "thoughts" or "understanding"? My Swedish language and background seem to influence the way I interpret English concepts that I encounter.

  22. Nick said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    I think your opening statement is very good.

    I hate that non-linguists are always so eager to comment on this debate with pro-Whorfian, anecdotal evidence. Just check out the first comment on the Economist site to see what I mean. When the non-linguist public wants to believe in something because they deem it "interesting" and have anecdotal "proof," nothing linguists can say will stop them from believing it.

  23. Spell Me Jeff said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    In Utah, compass directions are very salient. Part of this is the north-south orientation of the mountains. I could be blindfolded and dropped almost anywhere in the state and instantly know which direction I am facing. Most journeys lasting more than an hour are either north or south. From the central portion, where I live, all the good shopping is in Provo/Orem or Salt Lake City, collectively referred to as "up north." Almost all towns and cities are oriented with the compass points (check Google maps) and almost all streets are named numerically: 100 West, 300 South and so on.

    The point here being this: a variety of circumstances create an almost universal sense of compass directions, and the culture reflects this. We may not refer to a "southwest hand," but if you mention a compass direction in virtually any context, people know which way to go.

    (This is less true of children, however, perhaps because they do not drive.)

  24. InformationMagpie said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    @phosporus & @GeorgeW

    I think the main point is that while pretty much all languages are capable of expressing the same ideas, others do it with less difficulty/more easily and, consequently, this then shapes how we tend to think. Therefore, even though you could say to another English speaker that the fork is north-west to their plate, they would not necessarily know what you mean as they don't normally think about locations in such terms. Conversely, someone who does think about locations in cardinal terms always needs to know where the directions are which then 'shapes your cognition' because you pay more attention to certain things that speakers of other languages may not necessarily do.

  25. jc said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

    Chandra said: "If thought does not shape language, how did language first come about? Did primeval people think first, or speak first? Do animals not think, given that they cannot speak?

    This strikes me as the same error as the old claim by the creationists that the eye couldn't have evolved in small steps from ancestors that didn't have eyes. Both are incorrect for essentially the same reason.

    Anyone who has had a pet (such as the three small parrots that share our house) knows that they have a number of different "utterances" that have different meanings. True, they don't have a real "language", with syntax and thousands of root morphemes. But many animals are able to communicate simple concepts such as "food" or "predator" with distinct sounds. Some have different utterances for "air predator" and "ground predator". Most social creatures have a small repertoire of vocalizations that communicate useful concepts among the flock. We recognize and understand our parrots' squawks that mean "food", "intruder", "hello", "Where are you?", "I'm over here", "nest", and many others. Our conure has learned to recognize the sound of our two cars, and we know when the other human has come home from the conure starting her "hello" squawk.

    The idea that such simple "morphemic" vocalizations could slowly get more complex is not a challenge. Animal trainers know how to introduce new verbal commands to lots of species, and the idea of selection for a larger vocabulary is hardly a challenge. Most animals have a time sense, so simple word-order grammar would be expected once the morpheme count gets large enough. The ability to understand 2- and 3-word sentences has been demonstrated in dogs and several parrots, though it's not known whether their wild relatives do that.

    If you look up the known vocalizations of our closest relatives, chimps, bonobos and gorillas, it's not at all hard to believe that this is an ancestral form of our languages. (But some avian vocalizations aren't possible for the human vocal tract. ;-)

  26. Anon321 said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

    To corroborate MYL's point about the salience of compass directions varying from city to city, I found that when I lived in Manhattan, it was very common for people to say things like, "Head four blocks north on Avenue A, and the bar is at the southwest corner of A and 9th." Having moved to a city that lacks a grid-like street system and isn't particularly oriented on a nice N-S axis, it's much more common to give directions based on left and right, or "towards downtown," etc. That's not because New Yorkers have a different language or culture than people do here (at least not in the sense being discussed), but because it's easy and convenient to use cardinal directions in Manhattan, but not particularly easy or convenient to do so here.

  27. Xmun said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    "In the Cook Islands there is no word for 'virgin', and the chief dispute is whether singing should be practised before or after coitus." Thus David Profumo in his review of Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands in the Dec 2010 / Jan 2011 Literary Review (p. 15). Presumably Profumo is merely repeating what he has read in Schalansky's book. I offer this latest example of the trope, or whatever you want to call it, for your amusement. Having visited the Cook Islands recently, I can attest that English is widely spoken there. The reference must be to Cook Islands Maori, of which I found I could understand little that I read and almost nothing that I heard.

  28. Chandra said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    @jc: Animals can communicate simple concepts?! No way!

    I think you missed my point. Whether animals can produce proto-linguistic vocalizations is irrelevant. I'm saying that there's a lot more thought going on there than they'd ever be able to vocalize. I submit this YouTube clip of ravens' problem-solving abilities as an example:

  29. Clayton Burns said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    If language turned out to be a Möbius strip, it would not be a surprise. Like the ant tribes in China, the millions of students with their worthless degrees, we mill around imagining that we are making sense, but the mirage may fade with time.

    Perhaps the most valuable tool to search for analogies is "The Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose. Language assumes just as many bizarre twists and shapes as material reality. If language were an instrument of precision, we would already have developed a "Chomskyan Remote Cohesion Device" (like our Acute Diurnal Vision). However, it does not exist. Perhaps someday we will have it implanted in our skulls.

    Lera is on the periphery, where the blur is comforting but not enlightening. It is extremely difficult to kern language into the fovea. It is a kind of "E. Shelley Reid" device. Mark will be familiar with the matter of the Mendez criminal case in Virginia. If we were to study the fortunes of this language story carefully, we would see that The Washington Post and NBC Washington still have no idea, in spite of extensive commentary in Language Log. Some of the best of it by Liberman himself.

    Another indicator might be the curious nature of the English language (I might say that the way that the proposition is set up here is highly ambiguous). If we were to study the economics of English, all the money being poured into teaching and testing, we would discover some genuinely intractable anomalies: for example, how can Cambridge University Press have managed to get such traction in Australia and Canada, for example, with IELTS? If we inspected CUP IELTS Past Papers 6 minutely, comparing it to the COBUILD Intermediate English Grammar (in an intelligent way), we would see that IELTS is silly. Just a piece of trash. But many take it to be a rational product.

    Mark has indicated that "nearly every instance of this idea in the mass media is false or seriously misleading." But he does not draw the conclusion that Descartes did in his second meditation in "Meditations on First Philosophy:" "nevertheless I seize upon words themselves and I am nearly deceived by the ways in which people commonly speak."

  30. AJD said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    InformationMagpie writes:

    I think the main point is that while pretty much all languages are capable of expressing the same ideas, others do it with less difficulty/more easily and, consequently, this then shapes how we tend to think. Therefore, even though you could say to another English speaker that the fork is north-west to their plate, they would not necessarily know what you mean as they don't normally think about locations in such terms.

    But this has nothing to do with language! English can express "The fork is northwest of the plate" and "The fork is to the left of the plate" equally easily—in fact, it arguably expresses "The fork is northwest of the plate" more easily. So the fact that English-speakers are more likely to think in terms of the fork as being to the left doesn't seem to be shaped by what's easiest to express in the language.

  31. GeorgeW said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    @InformationMagpie: That is exactly it. We pay attention to features of the world required by our language. If our language is structured around cardinal directions, then we orient ourselves in that way.

    This is true of other features such as gender. Sex-based gender systems, like in English, require us to notice the sex in order to know whether we should say 'she,' 'he,' or 'it.'

  32. Doug said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    While I agree that most "Whorfian" claims one runs into are lame ones based on often incorrect claims of the no-word-for-X variety, I think there's an excessive anti-Whorfian bias here.

    I can't help noticing that while pro-Whorfians are condemned for relying on "anecdotes", the anti-Whorfians are happy to adduce anecdotes of their own to demonstrate (for example) that some English speakers some of the time do use compass directions (as though anyone ever doubted that.)

    While I have to apologize for the lack of a reference, I have read that experiments show that speakers of English and Dutch (for example) are much worse at keeping track of compass directions than are speakers of some languages in which it is customary to refer to the ant north of your foot and the like.

    Speaking a language that requires you to use compass directions a lot, even on the micro level really does induce you to keep track of compass directions more thoroughly. That is to say, the rules of your language (or, if you prefer, your culture's preferences about the appropriate use of language) really do in this instance affect your thought (whether you keep track of compass directions).

    In spite of the Manhattan anecdotes, and the others, it's fair to say that many speakers of English are clueless most of the time about which way is north, and that this is not true of speakers of some other languages/cultures that require more frequent use of compass directions.

    Incidentally, the Manhattan anecdotes don't impress me much because (1) "north" on the Manhattan grid is definitely off-kilter from true north, and most New Yorkers, I'd wager, couldn't even tell you which direction the bias is; (2) The street grid system gives you an enormous amount of help in keeping track of north and even so in my experience it's not uncommon for people to lose track and go the wrong way till they see a street sign that straightens them out. Speakers of some more compass-direction-dependent languages keep better track with much less in the way of artificial aid.

  33. phosphorious said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    "Speaking a language that requires you to use compass directions a lot, even on the micro level really does induce you to keep track of compass directions more thoroughly."

    But no language requires this. I could, if I spoke such a language, say something like "There is a spider crawling up what would be your easternmost leg if you were facing north." I would be understood, in that the sentence would be grammatical and the vocabulary would be standard.

    Whatever it is that prevents me from talking like that, it isn't the language.

  34. Chris said,

    December 13, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

    Ugh! THIS is why I seriously hope Liberman prevails in this debate (though his current 70-30 vote hole doesn't bode well). Too much of linguistic relativity is exactly THIS kind of nonsense, but the public eats it up like popcorn: How Colors Affect What You Buy.

  35. Geoff Pullum said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:44 am

    I despair not only of the project of influencing the public's beliefs on this topic but of the very idea that debate can be conducted in this medium. People comment without even reading. Look at what cynic8 says:

    I regret that the reverse, what we experience and the manner in which we think effects language is not mentioned.

    (The two mistakes — writing effects for affects and the missing comma after language to end the parenthetical — are cynic8's illiteracy, not my mistyping.) Now look at Liberman's second paragraph, right after his opener:

    But the way we think also shapes the language we speak, and the way we live shapes both language and thought.

    Clearly, cynic8 didn't even read as far as Liberman's second paragraph before mouthing off. What is the point of going on with the discussion in a medium, and an intellectual culture, of this sort? In the immortal words of the Monty Python sketch about the Argument Clinic, "This isn't argument; this is abuse." This isn't debate; this is posturing.

    If it were a debate, Mark would be losing it (it was 2 to 1 when I looked in on this depressing unconversational salon); but it isn't. It's two presentations of scientists' views that could easily be rendered fully consistent, plus an unfiltered stream of babbling commenters who are not responding to either. The opinions they present are the ones they held in the first place. By the way, I can't tell whether the commenter who lists the English words denoting snow types that only the Eskimos have words for (quoted by Andrew Garrett above) is joking; but it hardly matters, does it?

  36. Dominik Lukes said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    @magdalena Not to make this into a Czech lexicographic debate but in actual use 'pečivo' (much to my surprise when I looked in this) has two uses as a categorical label. One generic 'baked good' that you will find on shop fronts and that includes 'chleba' (bread) and one labeling 'rohlíky, housky, bagety' (rolls) that excludes bread. And it is the latter that is used in conversation. I've heard this very often from multiple people as instructions for shopping list 'chleba a ňáký pečivo' – meaning 'bread' in the narrow sense and some rolls (no matter what shape). Just observe how people order in Czech bakeries and the distinction will become clear. There's loads more to say on Czech bread as an area of linguistic and social practice. You really see this really clearly when you observe non-Czechs (or at least non-Central Europeans) trying to navigate this area. Which, again, is why I like Boroditsky's analogy about competence.

    @Chris I think you make an excellent point. There is nothing 'profound' about these differences. But they can become incredibly consequential in practice (for teachers, translators, negotiators, sojourners, and during various ingroup/outgroup rituals etc.) You can always work around them but you always have to work around them.

  37. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    The words-for-snow guy is quite obviously joking. I mean, come on people, read his whole comment:

    At first I was going to just not vote, because of the "well, duh" factor. When the opposition begins with "Properly interpreted, the proposition is true", you don't expect a good debate of the proposition.

    But there's something about the contention that Eskimos have separate words for flurries, blizzard, slush, powder, sleet, hail, graupel, drifts, névé, frost, ice, glaciers, … while we poor benighted English-speakers are stuck with the work-around of sticking modifiers on one word, "snow", for any solid H2O from the atmosphere. I'm going with "no".

  38. Eric S said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    The hilarious part about this is that the majority of people are voting *correctly*, even by myl's own admission in his opening sentence. But the user comments on the page indicate that they are doing it for exactly the kinds of reasons myl debunks: they think culture can be read in broad, sweeping terms from a lay understanding of language.


    "It only takes a trip to Brasil to realise that Portuguese (as it is spoken) is much more mellow and laid-back than German."

    The commenter probably has invented some well-defined metrics for speaker and language mellowness, and has done a regression analysis and found a statistically significant positive correlation. It would be interesting to compare the mean mellowness of Brazilians in 2010 to, say, the mean mellowness of the British in 1957.

    I wonder, does language laid-backosity always track mellowness? If so, we can probably just use one cover metric.

    I don't even have to take *one* trip to Brazil to invent stuff about its languages.

  39. GeorgeW said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:11 am

    @Eric S: Presumably the commenter also studied Portuguese in Portugal in order to make this 'mellowness' claim. At least they did not make a no-word-in-German-for-mellow claim as well. So, maybe there is incremental progress.

  40. GeorgeW said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:38 am

    Some of the comments in the Economist 'debate' are astounding to say the least.

    A good example is TSPC, an ethnobotanist who says, " The very fact that German for instance is based on very clear pronunciation of consonants as compared to French or Brazilian Portuguese already reveals a tendency to define issues clearly into black or white rather than black, dark grey, grey, light grey and white as would be the tendency in the Latin range of the European linguistic spectrum."

    Wow! It is not only the lexicon, but the phonology that shapes our thinking: Clear consonants = clear thinking.

    T goes on to say, " Moreover try flirting in one of these languages and you will probably come to choose one from the Southern, Mediterranean range."

    So, we speakers of northern European languages are not as adept at flirting. Surely, TSPC, a scientist has empirical data to support this claim.

    But, that is not all, T claims that using generic names for flora and fauna leads to exploitation of rain forests. This sounds like an insidious application of the 100-words-for-snow trope.

  41. Nijma said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 9:50 am

    Speaking a language that requires you to use compass directions a lot, even on the micro level really does induce you to keep track of compass directions more thoroughly.

    The compass direction can be embedded in the directions, for example "they can kiss the south side of a north bound mule".

    "Kiss the north side" gets 70 ghits, "kiss the south side" gets 102 ghits, with other animals receiving some mention, but for some reason plugging east and west into the expression yields no similar examples.

  42. Craig Russell said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:33 am


    Inspired by your comments, I went to the Economist's comments and read what the ethnobotanist TSPC said. T goes on to describe living with indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon, and marvels at the fact that every individual could name 400 types of tree, etc, and gets so worked up making an impassioned "isn't it wonderful how indigenous people are unspoiled and pure, not like us corrupt and lazy and stupid American/Europeans" speech that T forgets to actually argue anything coherent about language shaping thought!

    First, there's the implication that the indigenous people are somehow more thoughtful and wise than us because they can name more trees. I don't suppose T would be impressed if I were to suggest I am more thoughtful and wise than these Amazonian Brazilians because I have 400 words for "small square object made of plastic" (cell phone, iPod, Visa card, calculator, remote control, Gameboy…)? Or that, where they just see "car", I can identify at sight hundreds of makes and models, each with its own cost, gas mileage, and identification of social status.

    But the thought that this difference is actually caused by language is just patently absurd. People who live in the forest know more about the plants and animals in the forest because they live in the forest, not because their language has more words for trees! Even if the "Eskimos have xxx words for snow" proposition were true, surely the implication would be that the environment has shaped the Eskimo language, not that Eskimos happen to be more sensitive to different qualities of snow because their language allows them to.

    This seems to be the problem with many of the comments on the Economist Debate page. People are so passionate about asserting their beliefs that different cultures are different and see the world differently (sometimes combined with "and I tried to learn a different language, and you'll never guess how different it is from English!") that they aren't actually considering the question of what causes what. The thought that Greeks dividing the color spectrum up differently from English speakers causes the brains of each group to process color differently is a really interesting scientific and linguistic fact, and worth investigating. But that has nothing to do with what these people are talking about!

  43. Leonardo Boiko said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 11:47 am

    I can never identify the different kinds of trees OR the different kinds of cars. I’m a failure ;_;

  44. Mary Kuhner said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    It is easier to learn to discriminate among a collection of related objects if one names the different kinds. This comes up a lot in both of my fields of study (computer programming and biology). An ant researcher who didn't know much about seeds needed to sort a lot of ant-collected seeds and send representative samples to someone who could identify them. She ended up naming all the different kinds to make this work easier.

    It is also a lot easier to communicate about these differences if one names them and shares those names with others. In a large computer program we had sites-at-which-data-was-observed and sites-at-which-recombination-could happen. The code was a mess because we kept confusing those two distinct concepts. Eventually we invented names for them, and were immediately able to debug the code. (We called them "markers" and "sites" but any names would have done, I think.)

    But my experience is that if distinctions are salient, the language immediately arises to talk about them. People in Honolulu want to give each other compass directions but the city is laid out on a curving diagonal, so they use Hawaiian words meaning mountainward and seaward, and the names of two landmarks at the two ends of the city. Every hobby and craft immediately develops vocabulary for its niceties. I have coined quite a few words myself, though most will never have any general usage. It's hard to see the need for a word persisting for long without immediately producing a word.

    So I think the question is, do some topics have trouble becoming salient because the words are not there yet? Once the topics are salient, the words will be there, that seems clear. On the other hand, we struggled along without "marker" and "site" for a few months and committed some very fuzzy thinking as a result. If we had started out with those words in hand, progress might have been faster. At least I would not have been tempted to think they were the same thing.

    It seems to me that the strongest form of the controversial hypothesis that I'd endorse would be "Lacking words to distinguish two concepts can greatly prolong the length of time that one confuses them." I had this experience with "gender" and "sex" as well as "site" and "marker".

    I have five trees in front of my house. One year I decided to learn tree names, and I now realize that I have two Western Red Cedars and three Japanese Red Cedars. The trees do not look any more different now than they did then, but now I distinctly see two different kinds and would not confuse them (the Japanese are pricklier). But whether this difference in perception is more about salience (something drove me to learn their names, after all) or about names is hard to say.

  45. Clayton Burns said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    1.Debate Language Does language shape how we think?
    2.Language This house believes that the language we speak shapes how we think.

    Dear Economist: The two are not the same. The more interesting and fundamental question by far is the first one: How does language constrain or enhance thought? To put it narrowly. The second question–"This house believes that…"–prompts all the trivia of how one language may have surface features different from another language's.

    Robert Lane Greene should respond at Language Log to Pullum's objections to the forum. Some of his points are valid–it would be impossible for Pullum to write without making some excellent points–but there is no reason in principle why such a debate should be so sterile.

    One limitation is that the format is stiff. At the root of it is the fragile and uninteresting Economist website. I consider the Guardian site to be very good–young people like it too. The Australian also has a sharp site. Many other generic sites–Slate, Economist–need to be revolutionized in 2011.

    Mixing the two ideas–that language generally shapes thought–the only question is how–and the secondary issue of how different languages shape thought in various ways–creates confusion. That is what has happened here. It is indicative of how language is not a precision instrument that the Economist has fallen into this trap. I do want to thank Mark Liberman for his thoughtful contribution.

  46. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

    If I understand correctly, the significant part of Whorf's claim about the Eskimos is not that (like English speakers) they have various words for different kinds of snow, but that they have no single word for snow as such. Does anyone know if this is true? If it is, it does seem to reveal something significant about them, though not, certainly, that (in any straightforward way) their language shapes their thought.

  47. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

    It's absolutely not true that Eskimoan (Inuit and Yup'ik) languages don't have a general word for snow. The Eskimologist Jerry Sadock has the word as the personalized license plate of his pickup truck; I've seen it. It says APUT. What APUT means is "snow". It's true that it is generally used for snow in its lying-on-the-ground phase. They have a root meaning "snowflake" which would be used to refer to it on the wing, and a word for snowflakes driven by high wind, but then so do we (it's a blizzard). And APUT remains a perfectly general word. Laura Martin said all this in her 1986 essay, and I tried to publicize her in a 1989 essay reprinted as the title essay in my book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (1991).

  48. Rube said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    It's been a long time since I studied Inuktitut, but I remember well my sadness at discovering that there was a general word for "snow". It's amazing how much of what you think you know about the world just isn't true.

  49. peterm said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    GeorgeW said (December 14, 2010 @ 9:38 am):

    "T goes on to say, " Moreover try flirting in one of these languages and you will probably come to choose one from the Southern, Mediterranean range."

    So, we speakers of northern European languages are not as adept at flirting. Surely, TSPC, a scientist has empirical data to support this claim."

    Well, average family sizes among non-immigrant populations are typically larger in Southern European countries than in Northern European countries, real data which surely confirms the view that flirting is easier in the languages of Southern Europe.

  50. Tyrone Slothrop said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

    For a scholarly treatment and nuanced view of the (mis)uses of the debate concerning "Eskimo" words for snow and the emergence of a new trope (dare I say "hoax"?) about Boas, Whorf, and "Eskimo" words for snow, I'd recommend:

    Cichocki, Piotr and Marcin Kilarski.
    2010. On Eskimo Words for Snow: The life cycle of a linguistic misconception. Historiographia Linguistica. 37(3): 341-377.

    I would certainly read this after reading Pullum's popular account.

  51. GeorgeW said,

    December 14, 2010 @ 8:06 pm

    @peterm: So, economic situation and education aren't significant factors in family size, it is the structure of a language that facilitates flirting. Really?

    I hope your statement was sarcasm.

  52. Philip said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 5:38 am

    At some level, I veer toward Lera's take on the issue, but I don't think she's proven it in any way. There is no reason to think that any of the empirical evidence she cites couldn't be the result of cultural/experience-based influences.

    At a neurological level, I think the debate doesn't even set forth in clear terms what it would mean for language to shape thought. In that sense, I confess that I find the debate a little silly. Even Lera's evidence of brain activity showing color sensitivity at 100 ms post-stimulus doesn't unequivocally point to language as the source of any neural differences. This could be as much due to perceptual training and allocation of attentional resources.

    Last, I'm struck by the vagueness of the claims made by proponents in favor of the motion. In precise cognitive terms, what exactly is affected by language? Is it perception, memory, emotion, attention? If it's only one cognitive mechanism, why just that one and not others? Point being: I have yet to see an articulated, cognitively-based stance on how the influencing/shaping of thought takes place. But, if anyone knows of sources that state these things, I'm happy to be wrong.

  53. Pflaumbaum said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 6:25 am

    I don't understand the point about Aboriginal cardinal direction terms – it seems to beg the question.

    So the Thaayorre use direction words a lot, and they have this terrific sense of direction. Where is the evidence that they have the sense of direction because direction words are so ubiquitous in the language? Couldn't it be the other way round – that those words are convenient to use because everyone's always got such a good sense of where north is.

    I'm sure she has an answer to this but as it stands her "as a result" looks like sleight of hand.

  54. richard howland-bolton said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 8:14 am

    I don't know what it is about snow that gets it lumbered with nonsense. Maybe it's excitingly different for a lot of us (at least until some time in early January).
    Not only do the poor cold dears get it from couch potato linguists, but they also get the old "no two snowflakes are alike" treatment. I've seen reasonable phys chem arguments proving and disproving the claim, but the nonsense comes in because at the scale of a snowflake (say 1,000,000,000,000,000,000-ish molecules) NO two very similar things are really identical.
    We only have the snowflake meme because Wilson A. Bentley made a living out of selling pictures of them.

    Oh yes! And I suspect that by some time in early January Eskimos have just one word for snow and it's not repeatable— even on this log. :-)

    [(myl) The "words for X" trope is an older one, associated with exotic people in places where certain classes of things can be imagined to be commoner. Here's a previously quoted 18th-century epigram, which merges "words for X" with "a rose by any other name":

    In Araby, learned linguists say,
    So copious is the vulgar phrase,
    That speech at pleasure can display
    The lion's name five hundred ways.

    But while thus, column after column,
    Expression's vast varieties fall,
    These, though enough to fill a volume,
    Mean but one lion after all.

    Or else perhaps, with evident cause
    A doubt might rise, which most would scare ye?
    The lion's titles?—or his claws?
    The desart?—or the Dictionary?


  55. GeorgeW said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 10:59 am

    @myl: FWIW, I could find 4 Arabic words for 'lion.' However, I don't know if all are generic or refer to specific varieties of lion (like cougar, mountain lion, etc.)


  56. chris said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 11:36 am

    Of course, if you include kennings or similar constructions, then there could be a lot more — but that also goes for other languages.

  57. Clayton Burns said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 2:22 pm

    Dear Economist: How does English shape how we think? My test for Lera Boroditsky is this:

    O Rose, thou art sick!
    The invisible worm
    That flies in the night,
    In the howling storm,
    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy:
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

    How do you think about this lyric? If you wish, you can explain whether you think that the Abrams account of the poem (in his glossary of literary terms under "symbol") is even minimally acceptable as to sound symbolism, but that is not necessary. It would be valuable, however. What is the best encyclopedia entry that you have seen on "sound symbolism?"

    In the format of this debate, we have the little boxes of opening remarks, reader comment, and now Bickerton. It is as if we have separate universes of thought. (The transfer to Language Log has been somewhat inconclusive.)

    If we were to ask Lera to put aside her research for a minute, perhaps she would just continue to repeat her points. As if everyone were on her own wavelength and communication were forbidden. A metaphor for language, possibly. An empty corner of the universe where the wind makes subtle and suggestive but meaningless sounds.

    What seems to me to be most interesting about language is that, universally, we are under the illusion that we are seeing quite a bit. And that we are capable of giving a coherent account of that "what" that we see. There is no distinction from language to language re this primary fact.

    The more you read in different subject areas, the more you see that people are in their little bunkers. They just keep not noticing and they just keep saying the same things. If Lera were offered (by Lucifer) immortality she would just continue to say virtually identical things forever.

    Perhaps I am not the first to suspect that already she is falling into that pattern. She is everywhere. Like Moby Dick. Her habits are as patterned as the whale's.

    If you can say something original about "The Sick Rose," you can think. If you speak English and you cannot, then there is probably little point in pretending that you can (think). It is almost certainly just an illusion. Penrose stairs again.

    Perhaps Mark, Robert, and Derek could tell us how each one thinks about "The Sick Rose."

    And what is with the bizarre codes, such as: "FmH7QkxuEs?" Another metaphor for language. Almost a set of symbols. But too indecipherable to be permitted.

  58. Bill Benzon said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

    FWIW, I note that the office of the President of the United States is in the West Wing (which seems rather like a proper name as it's commonly used) of the White House. I can imagine that someone wanting directions to the West Wing might be told to turn left or right depending on what was required. I wouldn't make much of this observation.

  59. Clayton Burns said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 10:04 pm

    Dear Economist: Liberman has outfoxed Lera with his nice set of references. Both have managed extremely articulate rebuttals, but Derek has disappeared.

    Too bad for him. (One idea would be to have Chomsky comment on the material so far). One limitation of both positions is that we do not see the evidence of a deep monitor corpus. The fascinating Wall Street Journal article by Matt Ridley, "Why the Mind Sees the Future in the Past Tense," did not appear. Disappointingly.

    Nor has Lera explained how the gains for working memory are being defeated by some atrocious practice. Students in AP Psychology in Vancouver are being handed notes by the teacher. I thought the idea was to strengthen the metaphoric hand by taking meticulous notes yourself.

    The matter of China and English continues to emerge in a powerful way (the special status of English has not been well defined in this debate). Chinese English is perhaps a world class example of bad practice. How can they be going about it in such a broken way? How can the West be perpetuating trash English with TOEFL and IELTS?

    Both rebuttals are clear and high quality examples of academic text. However, there is a degree of unreality. Let us take just one instance of puzzling ways in the book trade. To publish a non-fiction book, you should have to submit a fully analytical electronic index to the Library of Congress so that the indexes could be merged, linked back to the books, and posted on the Internet before the books showed up in the bookstores. This measure would help to make languages more effective. Is there some reason we do not have this system now? Beyond pathetic inertia?

    So perhaps language is not so powerful after all.

  60. Julie said,

    December 15, 2010 @ 10:16 pm

    @Lugubert: Since, in two days, no one has tried to answer your question, I'll give it a shot.

    The mind is not the thoughts themselves, it's the part of you that thinks. Often it is portrayed as a brain, although the concepts are not really interchangeable. The mind is more of a metaphorical (or perhaps metaphysical) organ. It doesn't hurt, but it can be lost, if one goes insane. Often it is set in opposition to the heart: mind is to heart as thoughts are to emotions. To change your mind is to change your opinion or judgment. You may translate it as thought, consciousness, opinion, judgment understanding, or perhaps one's rational side or one's ability to think rationally, depending on the context.

  61. Joe said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 12:09 am

    I think Mark's rebuttal is spot-on, but I'm afraid it's too subtle for most of the people voting on the issue. Boroditsky isn't really giving "evidence" in the sense that I understand the term. She's presenting (rather contentious) results of particular experiments as if they were undisputed fact. (c'mon, if you are going to say that native speakers of Finnish take a year longer to figure out whether they are male or female than speakers of Hebrew because of the lack of a gendered personal pronoun, you better have a wealth of empirical evidence on hand). I have to say that I'm really disappointed with her contribution: I feel it is the worst kind of over-selling of results.

  62. GeorgeW said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 6:52 am

    @Joe: I have not read the studies that Boroditsk referenced (yet, but I intend to). But, if well founded, they do indicate a relationship between language and thought. She did not claim, from my understanding, that thought is controlled or completely constrained by language.

    I agree that Mark's presentation was "spot-on." However, I didn't read it as a rebuttal. I read it as a different perspective on the same issue.

    Further, I have a feeling that if the studies were badly flawed or her conclusions misrepresented the findings that Mark would have pointed this out in the 'debate.'

  63. Colin Whiteley said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    I think there is considerable confusion between language and culture. We all belong to a culture which constrains us to think in certain ways and to give more emphasis to some ideas than others. Language is a cultural phenomenon and superbly good at expressing and transmitting a culture. Smaller languages are generally culture-specific and have never needed to evolve to express multiple cultures. This is not the case with English, which is presumably just as efficient a medium in Nigeria and New Zealand as it is in Surry and Alabama. If the Whorfian hypothesis were true in any strong sense, translation between languages would be impossible. While translation certainly has its problems, they are usually related to expressing ideas to readers of a different culture with different shared knowledge, assumptions and (perhaps) values. Once a new idea is introduced into a culture, the language quickly evolves to reflect it. There was no word in any Euoprean language for "tomato" or "tobacco" until the need arose.

  64. Joe said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 7:52 am

    @George W,

    I agree that the examples Boroditsky cites would be good evidence for the neo-Whorpian position, provided that the conclusions of those studies were widely accepted within the scientific community. However, I just don't believe this to be the case. I'm quite willing to concede the results of a particular study. The question is how generalizable the findings actually are, and I think the more audacious the claim, the more evidence you need to present it without any qualifications. The study suggesting that Finnish children take a year longer to find out whether they are a boy or a girl because the pronoun hän is gender-neutral is a case in point. Even if you could prove Finnish children take a year longer to figure out if they are a boy or girl (and it would take more than one study to prove that) you still need to prove that the Finnish pronoun system is its cause (and it would take more than one study to prove that).

    The general remarks Mark in his rebuttal are the same as those he made about a specific study in his "Never Mind the Conclusions, What's the Evidence" (the second link above). I think this whole debate would have been better had one particular study been the subject for discussion. That way, the discussion could focus on the actual evidence (and how generalizable that evidence is), rather than the claims. Properly understood, Mark's rebuttal would go a long way to furthering the general level of scientific literacy. I'm glad in some ways that they chose him rather than Stephen Pinker (who criticizes many of these studies in *The Stuff of Thought). I just despair about whether people actually are capable of understanding it.

    The field of neo-Whorpian research is still quite young, so I'm not saying that the kind of research Boroditsky does is not valuable or interesting. I just think she is being very misleading because she is presenting claims as settled science when they are not. As I said, I am a bit disappointed, because I have read better things from her in the past.

  65. Joe said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    Sorry, I meant neo-Whorfian, obviously.

  66. GeorgeW said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:09 am

    @Joe: I presume that "neo-Whorfian' = weak-Whorfian vs. anti-Whorfian or strong-Whorfian, right?

    Unless I misunderstand, the difference between Boroditsky and Liberman is a matter of degree. In fact, Liberman says above, "As regular LL readers know, my perspective on this question is not all that different from Lera's."

  67. GeorgeW said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 9:26 am

    @Joe: P.S.

    FWIW, Elgin, in "The Language Imperative" takes a weak-Whorfian point of view. She says, "No scholar (including Sapir or Whorf) has ever suggested — much less openly claimed — that any such hypothesis is valid [that human perception is controlled by language]."

  68. chris said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    ISTM that the strong-Whorfian and strong-anti-Whorfian positions are both such obvious strawmen that it's going to be very hard to find anyone who isn't a weak Whorfian of some degree of dilution (making it difficult to hold a "debate" unless you either exaggerate the positions of the debaters, or focus on a narrow issue that actually is disputed rather than the broad generalities). It's more difficult to express a thought that you don't know the right words for — until you borrow or invent them.

    This is not the case with English, which is presumably just as efficient a medium in Nigeria and New Zealand as it is in Surry and Alabama.

    Only to the extent that you're considering English after it has adopted various loanwords for local lifeforms, geography, weather patterns, etc. English used to not have a word for "monsoon", until it adopted "monsoon". Other languages can do the same (and have done the same).

    Ditto for cultural artifacts like "hors d'ouevres" or "karaoke". The word was adopted along with the thing, changing both the language and culture simultaneously (or near-simultaneously).

  69. Clayton Burns said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

    It is comforting that the latest comment at The Economist makes an original point. Nonetheless, I find it disappointing that Geoffrey K. Pullum has turned his back on the debate.

    I am reading the comments at Language Log, some of which are subtle and interesting. In the main, the discussion at The Economist, even if somewhat ragged, is far above the level of the pathetic drivel you see at The Globe and Mail. I would be interested in a country and city profile of those offering their comments. Here is the Economist's 'original' comment:

    Rafael11 wrote: Dear Sir,the language we speak reflects our culture. Our culture shapes(or at least tends to) what we think. The eskimos for instance have more than 20 names for snow. Hard snow, soft snow, accumulated snow, thick snow, thin snow, all have an unique name. Someone in a dry climate without this words is unlikely to think of all those types of snow. But then, he doesn´t have too. posted on 16/12/2010 17:39:30 pm Recommended (0) Report abuse

    The December 4th-10th Economist has a special report on China, confusingly titled "The dangers of a rising China," when the Leaders comment on page 15 recommends multilateral cooperation. That report would reward study.

    In 2011, The Economist should undertake a major investigation of the English language in China and in the Chinese diaspora. Such a study would bring out all of the pathologies of teaching and testing English. Beijing, Sydney, Auckland, Vancouver, Stanford, Toronto, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Birmingham, and London should begin a one-year project to focus the issues of English as an international language in relation to China, maximizing the time zones. London would be well-positioned to be a fulcrum city in this project.

    The idea would be to encourage uptake of good tools such as the COBUILD English Grammar and to develop new ones such as a 40 or 50 lyric Internet database to be foundational in phonetics and phonology. Book IX of "Paradise Lost" would be the single essential longer selection. Setting up a competition between the COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English would be valuable.

    The 40 lyric database would give us the opportunity to link the sound systems of English and semantics ("The Road" is also powerful in that way).
    The idea would be to know why we are teaching a text in terms of sound patterns, vocabulary, grammar, and meaning. "Great Expectations," for example, contains over 150 counterfactuals. One good feature of this tactile and integrated method is that males respond to it (the feature that attracted most comment in The Globe and Mail was on why boys fail).

    It is puzzling that Lera has not managed to get much traction on language plasticity. The brain is a powerful instrument, potentially, if it does not spend most of its time rationalizing our inept habits. In English, the way to get extreme traction is to separate out the levels of the language and create exceptional tools for each level. The mind will do the integration.

    There is another feature of language plasticity that goes unrecognized. That is the necessity of the information cycle. We just have to get much better at teaching students how to internalize reading cycles, of books such as "101 Theory Drive" and "The Emperor of All Maladies," of weekend newspapers such as WSJ, NYT, Guardian, and The Globe and Mail, and of magazines such as The New Yorker. We teach English with the most piddling of tools. Some are even satisfied to "teach" English to Saudi Arabians by scamming them with TOEFL manuals.

  70. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock said,

    December 16, 2010 @ 11:41 pm

    […] Language and Thought at the Economist […]

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